I had been dreading the climb to the top of Box Hill for the last three hours. In my mind, it was the final brutal kick that would completely destroy my legs, already feeling as weak as cooked spaghetti from the 1,600m of climbing that I had already done.
As we turned on to the road leading up to the summit (if you can call it that) I thought I heard a car behind me. It was, in fact, a fellow cyclist. Although when I say ‘fellow’ it should be noted that the only similarity was that we were both on bikes. The rider passed me as if I was standing still. Actually I was going so slowly that it could have appeared from a distance that I was standing still.
This was the last lesson from a wonderful morning of lessons. Most of them learned the hard way.
So how did I find myself grinding up Zigzag Road to the top of Box Hill? Well, I was with my erstwhile teammates from the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro programme. The rider that shot past me was one of our group – Sam Harrison: a pro, riding for the Wiggins Team.
Joining Saxobank Ride Like A Pro (season #2)
I was part of the Saxobank RLAP programme last year. I felt hugely fortunate to be given the chance to learn about cycling from a great coaching team and a group of riders all more experienced than me. However for various reasons I didn’t feel that I got the most from RLAP’16. Partly that was down to my lack of cycling fitness, specific strength and undeveloped bike-handling skills. I wasn’t able to improve as much as I wanted because I spent so much time trying to get up to a basic level of cycling competence.
So I was really excited when I was one of a handful of alumni from the 2016 programme to be invited back for the RLAP’17 season.
I had spent this winter really trying to get better on the bike. Riding innumerable laps of Regents Park. As many long rides – especially out to Hertford, north of London – as I could. Absorbing as much info as I could about training properly and riding efficiently. And more learning about cycling history (I think that it’s only when you understand the past in a sport that you can get to grips with the present).
The First Group Ride
So Sunday 30 April was the date picked for the first group ride.
Inconveniently the start of the ride was in Dorking, a town to the south-west of London. Basically on the polar opposite side of the city from were I live. So the alarm needed to be set for 5:30am. On a Sunday morning (I was not popular with Mrs. Freeman!)
Having said that the location for the ride was inconvenient, it was a great excuse to check out a new area for riding. As I wrote a few paragraphs ago, most of my long rides have been north towards Hertford, which is lovely, but already becoming predictable. I was happy to check out a new area. One famed for the Surrey Hills. As I would discover first hand.
The ride started in a carpark just on the outskirts of the town. We were asked to choose a group to ride with: the steady group or the easier group. Of course I went for the steady group. The plan was an 80km ride that would take us around 3 hours. That seemed very reasonable and I was looking forward to chatting to some of my team mates and enjoy a roll out in the countryside.
But those Surrey Hills had different ideas…
The steady group was around 12 of us plus a couple of riders from the coaching team, Rowe & King and Sam from Team Wiggins. Thankfully as we rolled out and started to ride properly – in pairs side-by-side – I felt comfortable and pretty confident that I would not be dropped. At least not immediately.
What I had not done was check out the route in advance. Perhaps that was a good thing. But it did mean that I was not really ready for the amount of climbing and descending we would be doing. Wikipedia says that:
Dorking/ˈdɔːr.kɪŋ/ is a market town in Surrey, England between Ranmore Common in the North Downs range of hills and Leith Hill in the Greensand Ridge
The key thing that I had not appreciated was how sharp the hills are around that area. I was not prepared for the little brutes of climbs that we encountered. Leith Hill was the biggest climb, but there seemed to be dozens of other. Each one had me in the easiest gear I could get the bike in and most of them required me to be out of the saddle to keep upward momentum.
Then, of course, each climb would be followed by an equally sharp downhill. Most often on narrow country roads, with a ridge of loose gravel running down the middle. As someone who is a bit nervous about riding downhill, I could not work out what I struggled with more – the quad-shredding climbs meandering across the road at 8kph or the fast, twisting downhills, trying to avoid the potholes and on-coming cars at 45kph that immediately followed.
Towards the end of the ride we found ourselves on more undulating roads and the speed picked up a bit. This was undoubtedly my favourite part of the ride.
And then Box Hill came …
Riding Up Box Hill to the Cafe
Actually riding up Box Hill was great. Instead of a long, steep grind, I found switchbacks on Zigzag Hill, that resembled – albeit only slightly – what you might find in an alpine setting. Except much, much shorter. I didn’t even need to change out of the big ring. In comparison to the hills we have ridden up for 3 hours, the final climb was a breeze.
At the top the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro team for 2017 regrouped and we finally had a chance to chat properly for a while. The ride had not been the right opportunity to chat – there was too much pain on the climbs and concentrating on the descents. But we shared some thoughts on the ride and started planning what we will be doing next.
Honestly, I think the team – certainly the group I rode with – are all great. It was a pleasure to meet them.
And as for lessons learned. Well the first one is that I have a long (long) way to go as far as improving my cycling is concerned. I think this is probably a project that will take a few years. It will be a matter of getting fitter and stronger, improving my bike handling skills and developing more confidence.
Thankfully as part of Saxobanks RLAP programme, I am in a great position to become a better cyclist. I’m excited to see where this journey will take me (thanks Saxobank!)